My Running Coach and Learning to Run All Over Again

running coachI met with Steve, the running coach, on Friday. You wouldn’t think that two hours spent learning to do something that you already do on a regular basis could fly by, but they did.

Basically, I am learning to run all over again. The method of running that Steve the running coach teaches is called Chi Running. It’s based in the principals of T’ai Chi, which I’ve actually never done, but the way Steve explained it, it teaches you to run while being mindful of your center of balance.

You lean forward, so that your center of gravity falls right over where your feet land. Then you focus on landing on your whole foot, and kicking back. It sounds like a subtle difference, but it actually takes a ton of concentration to maintain. Before we met Steve told me: “you’ll start a white belt and finish the session as a white belt.” He was right.

The good news is I’m running again and my knees are not screaming at me. The bad news, I feel like I’m back at square one. This new form uses different muscles, so all that endurance I built up for the half marathon isn’t helping me much. I’m going to have to bust my ass to get my distance back before the full marathon in August.

The other thing that has given me pause is the metronome. The way you hold your body when running like this lends itself to lots of small steps, and it is taught with a metronome. Literally. I now run with a metronome clicking in my ear. I’m at 170 steps per minute and will work up to 180 by race day.

While this helps me keep my pace up, it does not allow me to listen to my audio books while I run, which frankly might be a deal breaker. I love, love, love listening to stories as I run.

So I’m going to do another week with the metronome, to get a feel for it, and then I’m going to switch back to my books. Hopefully I can keep a focus on my form, while still listening to a story. If not, I will be forced to seriously reassess.

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After The Half Marathon

half marathon
As you know, I recently ran my first half marathon.

Turns out, I’m actually pretty good at distance running. I enjoy it. In fact, I don’t really start to enjoy running until about the third mile. If someone had told me, back in high school, when they made us run that terrible ten-minute mile bullshit, that I would always hate the first mile, but love the eighth, I would have thought they were crazy.

And yet, here I am.

The thing is, I think I’m doing it wrong. Maybe it’s my form, or maybe I need to cross-train to build up my support muscles or something. All I know is that right around mile 13 my knees started hurting. I kept running until the finish line, but two days after the half marathon I could barely walk, my knees hurt so bad. They’re still hurting ten days after the race.

This is simply unacceptable. I already signed up for a full marathon in August, which I fully intend to run, so I made an appointment with a running coach. It’s a two-hour thing on Friday, and it’s $150, which hurts a little all on its own, but I’m justifying it with the fact that I would spend more than that on a gym membership (over the next three months), so it balances out. Running is free.

In fact, by that logic, I’ve already saved that much by running the neighborhood instead of joining a gym.

Anyhow, the only way I can possibly tie this to my writing is that I haven’t had any time to listen to my books on tape over the last ten days. Usually I listen while I run (which is pretty much the perfect way to spend an hour or three).

I can’t wait to get back out there.

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Reading Like a Writer

Read like a writerFor a long time I thought reading like a writer meant simply reading a lot. That’s part of it. However, while reading is critical for writers, passively absorbing stories isn’t enough. To really read like a writer, you have to stop trusting writers.

Used to be that when people asked what I thought of a book, I would say “it was pretty good.” Sometimes it was “really good” or sometimes “meh,” but generally I was satisfied with anything that told a good story. I was reading like a reader.

Once I started writing, I grew more a little more critical. I started noticing loose ends of a story line, or particularly beautiful prose. But it wasn’t until I started reading unpublished work that I actually developed the ability to read like a writer.

As I mentioned in a previous post, reading submissions for a literary journal was a great way to get started, but I have read my share of stories for workshops as well. Preparing to give informed feedback meant being diligent, looking for all the little things I had learned in school, from split infinitives all the way up to story structure.

After years of reading unpublished work with this mindset, the practice has started to spill over into all the reading I do. After countless seminars and panels, I’ve started to realize that authors are (gasp) just people, and they don’t always get it right.

In some ways this sucks, because my threshold for a good read has gone way up. These days, to get lost in a book, it has to have everything right. So nowadays, when I say a book was great, what I mean is: it was so good that I forgot all about being a writer and just fell into it. Very few books hit that mark.

The next challenge is to bring that kind of eye to my own work. My understanding is that it’s not really possible unless you take some time away from your work, so step one is to finish the draft. Step two will be to put it in a drawer and forget about it for a while. Then I can come back to it and attempt to bring my most critical eye.

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Books, Books, and 13.1 Miles

13.1 milesIt was a big weekend for me.

Saturday was my birthday. Then Sunday I got up really, (stupidly) early to run my first 13.1 miles at the Disneyland Tinkerbell half marathon. After that it was nap time, and Mother’s Day celebrations. How lucky am I?

The last week also brought an influx of books.

First off, I like to listen to audio books when I run. About three miles into my 13.1 miles on Sunday I finished “State of Wonder,” by Ann Patchett, and started “A Tale for the Time Being,” by Ruth Ozeki. If you listen to audio books (and if you live in LA, you really should – it will totally change your outlook on traffic), check out the free app called Hoopla. It’s like Audible, but supported by public libraries. It can be a tad unreliable on the playback unless you download the book to your device. So do that. It’s great. And it’s saving me a ton of money.

Second, everyone knows I love books, so I got a couple of great ones as gifts. One I’m almost done with already. It’s called “Born to Run,” by Christopher McDougall. If you’re a runner, you’ve probably already read it, but if you haven’t, check it out – absolutely fascinating. The other is called “A Field Guide to Getting Lost,” by Rebecca Solnit. It’s next up.

Third, I ordered myself 16 books from Amazon as a birthday gift to myself. If you follow along, you know I’m working on a novel with a biracial main character. She’s half-black in an all-white town. So I need to know a lot more about what it means to be the only girl of color. I intend to dive into the research on this one. I’m going to read everything I can get my hands on about what it’s like to be a young black woman. I did a bunch of googling, reading reviews and chat boards about books that capture the black experience in America today. I’m feeling pretty intimidated about getting it right, and I may yet bail if I don’t think I can do it justice, but a good friend of mine has encouraged me to “be brave,” and write the story as it has evolved. I have a lot of reading to do.

And today is a good day to start, since my knees are wrecked from running 13.1 miles, and I’m laid up. I’m alternating between ice packs and epsom salts baths, but one thing is clear, if I’m going to make my goal of running a marathon before I turn 40, I need to start doing some cross training.

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How to Handle Rejection

This is what I used to look like when I got a rejection letter.

crying

But it has gotten better.

These days, every time I get a rejection letter, I also get a high-five from my husband.

Last week, at the dinner table, I shared with the family that I got two rejection letters in one day. My husband held up his hand and I gave it a slap.

My daughter, who is old enough now to understand that rejection is supposed to be a bad thing, asked why we were celebrating. We told her what we always tell each other: if you’re not getting rejected, you’re not putting yourself out there enough.

It’s not that I’m happy about being rejected. Not at all. What I celebrate is that fact that I’m still in the game. I high-five because the minute I got each of those rejections I sent out my story to another journal. My husband is cheering me on in my relentless pursuit of publication.

So if you hate rejection (because who doesn’t) I invite you to make use of my two-step response.

  1. Send your story/query to the next journal/agent on your list immediately. (If you don’t already know who is next on your list, check out my Submission Spreadsheet. You should always know what’s next.)
  2. Find someone to give you a high-five. This can be via text, over the phone, or at dinner that night, but find someone to tell you that you’re doing an awesome job. Because you are. You’re fighting the fight. This is what it is to be a writer.

These two steps won’t do anything to mute the pain of rejection, but they will hopefully keep you from quitting. As a teacher of mine once said, “There are two kinds of writers: those who get published, and those who quit.”

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Reading for a Literary Journal Will Make You a Better Writer

Six years ago, I began volunteering once a week to read submissions for a literary journal. At the time I was in grad school, and I was trying to build up my resume. I figured Associate Editor would look good on paper, and it might be a fun way to get to know some of my fellow classmates.

What I discovered is far more valuable than a blurb on my resume. Here it is: The best way to improve your own writing is to read the work of others.

That may seem like a no-brainer. We all read. But if you only read published work you are missing out on something magical. Reading for a journal is a special kind of education.

Because the truth is, most of the work that journals receive for review is not good. And you can learn a lot by reading work that needs a polish. After reading fifteen stories that mix metaphors, you’re going to find mixed metaphors really annoying, and you will be far less likely to mix them in your own writing.

What’s more, if you’re in a room full of readers, you get a unique peek into how editors read submissions. If someone can’t help but read a cover letter out loud because it is so ridiculous, you will make a mental note to never be such an ass in your own query letter.

When it comes down to final decisions, and the group is debating which stories will get the coveted pages between the covers of your journal, you will hear first-hand what pushes one story into print, while others get relegated to the rejection pile.

What reading for a journal will NOT do is make it easier for you to get your own story published in that journal. Do not be the guy who volunteers twice and then asks when they’re going to publish your story. Just don’t do that. In fact, assume that whatever journal you’re reading for is off limits for submission. It’s just a matter of being professional.

If you’re a serious writer, find a journal near you and ask if you can join their team of readers. This will take a bit of sleuthing. Try local colleges, go to a local book fair, check out Meetup.com, or if all else fails, you can volunteer virtually (most journals accept digital submissions, and many have remote readers).

Reading remotely isn’t as good as being in the room, but the exercise of reading a piece, giving it a thumbs up or down, and having to justify your decision in a sentence or two, will improve your writing. I promise.

At the same time, you will be supporting a literary journal with free labor. It’s a win-win.

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Buddhism

Spirit rock
Two women with bibles in their hands just knocked on my door.

They kindly asked if I struggled with anxiety, and suggested that I reference my bible Matthew 6:18 for some guidance on how to deal with it. I thanked them (because we all deal with anxiety) and I told them we’re a buddhist household. I own a bible, a beautiful one that belonged to my mother when she was a child, but I keep it on the shelf for reference. I find it comes in handy when I’m writing, particularly when I’m writing religious characters.

This stumped them. I’ve had the experience before. You tell a bible thumper that you’re buddhist and they just don’t know what to say. They know buddhism is a religion (though I prefer to think of it as a philosophy), but they don’t know much about it. They smiled and continued with the script: It’s good to have somewhere to turn when anxiety builds up.

I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I spent all last week in silent meditation at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Norther California (pictured above – isn’t it beautiful?). No talking, no writing, no reading. Just me, and 100 or so other people, sitting silently with our own thoughts. People think it’s the silence that’s hard, but for me, it’s not reading. I have trouble falling asleep at night without reading.

This was the third retreat I’ve done, and the shortest. Still, even just having a few days to be quiet and meditate is such a welcome change of pace. My hubby and I try to make space for each other to go once a year, but for many years I’ve chosen to do writing retreats instead. Taking this time felt like a nod to balance in my life.

Anyhow, I didn’t tell the nice ladies at the door all this. I simply thanked them for their care and concern and wished them luck on their walk. Next time I think I will invite them in for coffee. I would LOVE to know what motivates them. How is it that they spend their days walking from house to house singing the word of the lord? There’s a story there.

But I already have a story, and right now, that’s what I need to be working on.

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6 Tips for Forming a Writing Group

Years ago, when my friend Amy asked me if I wanted to be a part of her writing group, I was skeptical.

I was just wrapping up my masters degree, and had been a part of three different writing groups, all of which had lasted no more than a meeting or two before going down in flames. I knew having a group of writers to share work with was important (because all of my instructors had said as much), but it just didn’t seem to be working out.

Luckily, Amy knew what she was doing. Or maybe she just had really good instincts. Either way, the group of five women she pulled together was amazing. We met every two weeks for five years. It was a formative experience. Though the group has morphed, and is headed in a new direction (more on that soon), I wanted to share the things that I feel made the group so successful.

In my experience, the best writing groups:

  1. Have five members. With five you still have a group if one, or even two people have to miss a meeting. Our rule was always that if three of us could make it we kept the meeting on the calendar. (If only two of us could make it, we usually just met up for drinks.) More than five, and you have to wait too long to have your own work come up in the rotation for feedback. Five is the sweet spot.
  2. Have members that live within a few miles of each other. It’s hard to make time for a writing group, and adding a commute doesn’t help. The other, failed, groups I participated in usually started to fall apart because people didn’t feel like driving after a long day of work.
  3. Are diverse. I’m partial to all-female groups, but I loved that our group had a wide range of ages (from 20s up through 50s). Three of us were married, two weren’t. Three of us worked in academia, two did not. Of those of us who had kids, one was remarried with teenagers, and two had young kids. We also wrote in different genres. From fiction, to stage play, to memoir, to musical, we all brought something different to the group. I actually thought this would make it difficult to give feedback, but it worked fantastically and kept the group interesting.
  4. Meet on a regular schedule. We chose every-other Thursday at a member’s home. We would all get out our calendars and schedule three months at a time. I know some groups meet more or less often, but for us, that was perfect.
  5. Have an agreed upon structure. We began each meeting with half an hour of social time (or time for the chronically late to arrive). Then half an hour of feedback for one writer, followed by half an hour feedback for a second writer. We wrapped up with a half hour of time to plan who would submit next, give each other advice, talk about what books we’re reading, etc. Who ever was hosting was in charge of keeping the group on schedule.
  6. Wine. Lots of wine.

If anyone else out there has tips for forming a kick-ass writing group, I’d love to hear them.

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What I Learned at AWP This Year

AWP is a pretty epic gathering of writers. I went once before, when I was in grad school, and had to travel all the way to Chicago to do it. So when I found out it was going to be here in LA this year I signed up right quick.

AWP16

In case you’re unfamiliar, the annual AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference is like a lot of other conference-style events, except much more awesome because it’s all about writing (that’s Jonathan Franzen there on the left). There are seminars, and panels, and parties, but the best part is the massive expo floor with hundreds of booths, almost all of which exist to promote literary journals.

For three whole days, I wondered the convention center, sitting in on sessions, and bit by bit making my way to every booth on the expo floor. I met a lot of journal editors, including some that have my latest short story in their slush piles. I shook hands, and bought a few editions. Totally worth the price of admission.

Here are a few things I learned over the weekend at this year’s AWP:

  • The Sun Magazine is looking for fiction. Not only do they pay (well), they are also a fantastic publication printing high-quality work. I sent them my latest short story, and you should too.
  • A woman on a panel, talking about how women are published at a lesser rate in most journals, noted that when they are rejected, women tend to stop submitting. Men just send another story until something is accepted. This is not to say there isn’t a bias in publishing, but women need to know that a big part of being published is simply being persistent.
  • On that note, I discovered VIDA, a non-profit dedicated to women in the arts. They actually do a count every year of the percentage of women published by major journals. You can read about it here. #wecount Spoiler alert – The Paris Review is rocking it.
  • I attended a panel about forming a writers collective. The basic idea is that you gather about a dozen or so writers that you admire and pool your resources to help promote each other. Sounds pretty awesome to me. At some point, I really want to try this, but for now I’m focusing on finishing my novel, so I have something to share.
  • Lastly, I heard a well published writer encourage us all to just keep writing. He talked about how he wrote his first novel ten minutes at a time, in the driver’s seat of his car, before going into the office. What’s more, he said that when he looks at that writing, and compares it to writing he does now (with ample time to contemplate and formulate), he can’t tell the difference. Just keep writing.

Those were the major take-aways for me, the last one being the most important. Just keep writing.

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